By Jessica Newsome
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what forgiveness means. To be honest, the word enrages me. When I grew up, forgiveness meant “restoration”—which frankly, meant abuse. It meant that church leaders who tried to cast demons out of my friends suffering from eating disorders were above reproach. It meant the church members who emotionally, physically, and financially controlled every aspect of our lives had no accountability once they said, “I’m sorry”—if they said it at all.
“Forgiveness” meant no consequences, no changes, no healing. Hence the rage.
One evening after my mother left my dad the last time and I had left the church that kicked her out, I sat in my dorm room and called my dad. And screamed at him to leave my family alone. He had broken into the house again. The next time I came home my keys wouldn’t work—my mother had changed the locks twice since the last time I had been home. So I tried to protect my family by fighting over the phone with my dad and telling him to fuck off or I’d call the police even if no one else would.
After I hung up on him, I called my sister and told her about the “conversation” I had with our dad. She listened to me and when I finished my story, she said, “Jess, I don’t need you to do that anymore. It doesn’t help.” She might as well have punched me in the gut. I didn’t understand. She kept saying, “It just makes it worse for us here at home. It makes it worse for me.” Finally, I said I would stop talking to our dad. I didn’t understand. I just knew if I wasn’t protecting her then I needed to stop.
So I gave my dad back the car he’d given me—a ’93 Chevy Blazer that would fall apart while I was driving it. I changed my phone number and didn’t give it to him. I refused to visit him at holidays. I was still angry.
I would talk to my aunt and ask her what forgiveness was. She told me she wasn’t quite sure herself and that she probably wasn’t the best person to ask. She did say the closest thing she knew to what that meant was this: When she was in her late teens and early twenties, she’d lived by the motto, “Don’t let the bastard win.” The bastard was her dad, and she did everything she could to spite him—to make sure he didn’t “win.” But then she realized that by keeping that as her motto she was still letting him win—he would always have control over what she did so long as she was fighting wars with him.
I thought that sounded doable but not for a long time. I didn’t understand my sister and I couldn’t believe her. I thought she was weak. She continued to talk to my dad and have a relationship with him. I thought she was letting him get away with the way he had treated my mother and our siblings. I thought she was letting him get away with how he treated her—and that was the worst thing I could have ever imagined. I was angry with her, for making me let him get away with it, too.
I started working at a domestic violence shelter, willing my rage into action. I went to classes, most of the time. I slept in when I wanted to. I went to therapy—lots of therapy. I laughed with my friends. I had fun. I had a boyfriend I loved. I learned to be silly again. I was happy. I didn’t think about how to not let the bastard win. I just lived. I applied to graduate school. I moved to Chicago. And slowly, the rage eased. I don’t think about my dad much anymore at all. I don’t live my life around him or around winning.
I kept talking to my aunt about forgiveness. I thought I was forgiving my dad, but—wasn’t it supposed to be unconditional? I still never saw him when I went to visit the rest of my family. She said that forgiveness was absolutely conditional—I got to decide the condition, so long as that condition allowed me to heal.
She said, “You’re healing because you took away the opportunity for him to hurt you—not because you’re punishing him. You’re allowed to set boundaries of what you can and cannot handle. It lets you keep living. Every time you see him or talk to him, you can’t forgive him because he does something else. So if the condition of your freedom is that you don’t see him anymore—then you don’t see him anymore. You know that you can’t change the past. You know that you can’t change him. So you do what you need to do to stay healthy. And I think that’s as close to forgiveness as any of us really get.”
Except that my sister still saw him. And that still enraged me. She had seen worse things than I had and yet she still talked to him—he fixed her car and she knew his new girlfriend and where he lived. He called her when he was drunk and suicidal and she still answered the phone. We got into many, many fights about it—even though I had left him alone. I did not understand how she could let him get away with who he was.
Finally, about a year ago, we had a conversation about it. I asked why she still talked to him—and for once I took my head out of my ass and listened.
“Because,” she said, “he’s my dad. And I deserve to have a relationship with my dad. It isn’t a great relationship. He isn’t the dad I deserved or should have had. But he is my dad and it would hurt me too much to not have a relationship with him. I set boundaries to keep myself healthy. I turn my phone off when I don’t want to take his calls. But I let him fix my car and that doesn’t hurt me. I listen to him when he’s upset and I feel like maybe I’m doing something good for him. It doesn’t mean I can change him—I can’t. It doesn’t change the past. But it lets me keep peace.”
She asked me why I didn’t ever see him and I tried, in far worse words than the ones I’ve typed, to explain what my aunt had said. I felt all the parallels of our decisions coming together. After I got done talking, my sister said, “So maybe we’re doing the same thing even though we’re doing it differently.”
I still don’t know what forgiveness is—and I’ve got plenty of rage to go around. I think being woke means sometimes you recognize that there are things to be in a rage about. But I don’t fight with my sister anymore when she needs something different than I do. She doesn’t fight me either. It took almost a decade for us to learn how to learn for ourselves what we needed. It took us almost a decade to learn what the other person needed didn’t say anything bad about us—that neither one of us were letting anyone “get away” with having wronged us. My decisions have nothing to do with my father’s actions. Whether or not he is kind to my siblings or whether or not he is an absolute jerk to them, I keep living my life and loving them and he comes nowhere near me. And my sister lives her life according to how much time or space she can give him—which she knows that better than I do.
I still don’t know what forgiveness is—but maybe by the time I’m 80 I’ll have figured it out.
Jessica Newsome is a social worker who lives in Chicago, IL. She is not attached to any other writing projects at the moment but to read her outdated blog you can visit renaissance-muse.blogspot.com. Or you can try to follow her protected Twitter, @jess_news. She’s currently working on a better way to connect with readers.